Growing up, I ate a lot of Chinese vegetarian foods and mock meat. My grandma is Buddhist, which meant that on certain times of the month she’d have to go vegetarian for a week. Those were my favorite weeks. Grandma would prepare numerous dishes of faux ham and chicken, working wonders with wheat gluten, tofu and mushrooms. I grew to like mock meat even more than real meats (save for sweetbread, foie gras, and braised shortribs, hehe). A lot of it had to do with the texture, “meat” made from veggies, especially tofu always seemed to carry a lighter chewy with a bit of bounce. I like soft foods and the rhyme and blend of various forms of bean curd and mushrooms were very appealing.
Which explains my excitement to visit to Happy Family Vegetarian in Rowland Heights, a restaurant specializing in mock meats. I went with Trisha, a close friend from high school. While she may not be the most adventurous eater, Trisha was nonetheless kind enough to stand my excessive enthusiasm and quite willing to indulge in my delight for mock meats. That’s what high school friends are for.
We arrived around 5:30pm, soon after the restaurant opened for dinner. A few tables were filled, mostly older couples and small families. We were welcomed into the restaurant with cheerful, “hellos, welcome, welcome,” all around and given a small complimentary salad to begin. A basic mix of chopped lettuce, carrots and cucumbers was tossed in a light miso based dressing, very simple, yet clean and fresh.
Our Vege House Chicken with Sesame ($8.50) reminded me a lot of kung pao chicken, only without the spice and without the chicken. Little rounds made of chopped button mushrooms, eggplant and tofu were battered, fried, then finished in a tangy sweet-sour glaze. Texturewise, I could barely differentiate it from actual chicken, but in terms of flavor, I enjoyed this a great deal more. The batter was crisp and sharp, served at a sizzling hot temperature that contrasted with the soft, sweet blend of vegetables. You could even claim that it was “juicy.” Cause it was.
We also shared a dish of “real” vegetables, Eggplant with Basil ($7.25). This was noted as ‘spicy’ on the menu, but as Trisha can’t eat spicy foods, we asked for it to be made mild. The dish consisted of a rather generous portion of eggplant stir-fried with fresh basil leaves in a garlicky sauce. The eggplant melted right onto my bowl of hot rice, while the sauce did its duty, lovingly soaking through every grain. Enjoyable, if not a pedestrian item, but I can’t help but imagine how much the dish would benefit from with a touch of fiery peppers!
It was just going to be these two dishes for our “light” dinner…that is, until I saw Fried Bread ($2.00) listed on the menu. I loooove bread, and whenever there’s any time of bread, be it sweet or savory, listed on a restaurant menu, count me for an order. Even better if it’s fried. The duo of mini loves were crispy, crunchy and just oh-so-fried to that deep golden brown shade. The crust functioned as decadently delicious armor, holding safe to the soft, white layers of nothing but pure plush dough. The only thing more I could have asked for was a bowl of condensed milk. Just for dipping, you know? Fried. Bread. Sweet Milk. It’s a god blessed combo made in heaven.
Our meal closed with complimentary bowls of tapioca in a sweetened evaporated milk base. This was a particularly refreshing end, given the greasy nature of our dish. There were so many more interesting dishes I’m interested to try – Fried Taro with Lychees, Vege Shark’s Fin with Mustard Greens and something called “O Oh Gen” (anyone had this before?) Well, we will be back, and I’ll let you know!
It’s midnight now, and I could really go for a mock ham sandwich. Like the kind my grandma makes. Such are my childhood memories.
Happy Family Vegetarian Restaurant
18425 E. Colima Rd., 2nd Floor
Rowland Heights, CA 91748